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Baltimore school board to vote on new policies for police officers

The Baltimore school board is set to vote this week on sweeping new policies for school police that backers say are aimed at keeping schools safe without criminalizing students.

The vote Tuesday on policies and general orders follows months of debate and feedback from the community. Baltimore is the only district in Maryland with a sworn police force.

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Advocates for students have long pushed the district to craft a progressive school police policy. Their calls for action took on new urgency in 2016 after a viral video showed an officer at REACH Partnership School slapping and kicking a student inside the building.

Akil Hamm took over as acting police chief after the incident and was appointed to the position in May 2017. He has overseen a drop in school-based arrests. For the past two years, no student has filed a complaint alleging improper police conduct.

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City schools officials are "vigorously" investigating a cellphone video that shows a uniformed officer slapping a young man, schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said.

“Clearly we’ve changed the way that we police,” Hamm said. He said the policies would keep the district “on the right track.”

The regulations, written by the school police and the district’s legal office, emphasize that disciplining students is the responsibility of school administrators, while “responding to serious crime” is the job of the school police. There are roughly 100 police officers stationed at 37 schools, most of them high schools.

Hamm said his officers now arrest students only for the most severe violations, such as robbery or bringing handguns to school.

Lower-level offenses are being diverted to teen court, community mediation programs or treatment for mental health and substance abuse. A new general order would formally direct school police to steer students to intervention programs rather than the Department of Juvenile Services when possible.

“We haven’t arrested a kid for disruptive behavior or disorderly conduct in two school years,” Hamm said. “At one time, we might have arrested 100 kids for disruptive behavior.”

New general orders would also define the ways school police officers should interact with students who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities or speak limited English.

The district worked with the Maryland Center for School Safety, consulted with a North Carolina judge known for saying that “zero tolerance is zero intelligence,” and drew from recommendations from President Barack Obama’s Task Force of 21st Century Policing.

It would be a divergence from the traditional recitation often heard in TV cop shows, which begins: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

Some say the proposals don’t go far enough. The Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline is asking the school board to delay its vote and go back through the policies to ensure they are designed with young people in mind, particularly in use-of-force regulations.

Juvenile public defender Jenny Egan told school board members they shouldn’t squander their opportunity to “create a new standard for how police interact with kids in our schools.” That’s necessary, she told the board at a recent meeting, to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities.

“This is a status quo policy,” she said.

The coalition is asking the board to require school officers to use a Miranda warning written for youths when arresting juveniles.

They argue that the complex legal language of the Miranda warning is difficult for children and teens to understand. Some might waive their rights under pressure from an authority figure without comprehending what a phrase such as “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law” means.

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Their recommended change — drawing from precedent set in King County, Wash. — includes sentences such as “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk to me” and “you have the right to talk to a free lawyer right now.”

Hamm said the district agrees with the coalition’s points and plans to adopt a “youth Miranda.” The legal office is still going over the final language.

Kimberly Humphrey, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maryland, said the coalition will see Tuesday “what form that actually takes and whether it’s actually based on best practices.”

She also said the district needs to include more details about how it will divert children away from the juvenile justice system, and ways to measure their success in doing so.

“They haven’t done enough to be comprehensive, and that’s the only way this all works,” she said.

85 percent of students surveyed say school police are respectful to students, but 48 percent feel school police use excessive force when dealing with conflicts.

The new policies would codify ways in which school police officers will be accountable to the public. It would formally establish a school police student advisory team that would meet a minimum of four times a year.

And it would commit the district to administering a school police report card annually, and sharing the results with the public.

The district revealed the results of the first-ever survey of its kind in the fall. It showed that city students have a generally positive relationship with school police, though many still think the officers use excessive force when dealing with conflicts.

“There’s still work to be done,” Hamm said in September.

Egan said the district must clarify and simplify its complaint procedures to make it them more accessible for children and families.

“You have to have policies where kids can walk into the office and say, ‘Something bad happened to me,’ ” she said. “Right now, it’s too obscure.”

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